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Why early exposure to language is so important

By Janet Castrejón, MA

It seems the popular phrase "Use it or lose it" can now also be applied to language learning ability. Small children have a unique ability to learn languages that, if not utilized, may be lost forever.

Everyone knows that children learn languages much more quickly and efficiently than we adults do. Mere exposure is enough for a child to soak up a new language while we adults struggle in language classes trying to apply grammar rules as if they were algebra formulas. Children learn language inductively. They hear the language and are able to induce the grammar rules. Most experts agree that language learning is easiest before the age of seven. The ability to learn languages declines further around puberty.

When children learn a second language, they do it quite differently than adults do. Children learn a second language in the same way that they learned their first language and store it in their brain along side their first language. Adults, on the other hand, store second language information in a separate area of the brain.

BabyA newborn baby is able to differentiate all of the sounds of all languages. By six months of age, babies respond more selectively just to sounds in the language that they have been exposed to. For example, Japanese babies at the age of six months no longer respond to the difference between /r/ and /l/, a differentiation that doesn't exist in their language. This is called perceptual narrowing. It is a loss of the ability to perceive sounds in other languages. The ability to achieve native-like pronunciation, therefore, is greatly affected by the age of exposure to a language.

Most experts agree that there is a window of opportunity when the brain is most efficient at learning languages. As parents, our hope is to take advantage of this window before it closes.


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